First the ridiculous, then the sublime.
Pope Benedict took his leave before an immense crowd gathered to bid him farewell. It was a moment of painful beauty, as the luminous soul of long years spoke simply and with great emotion of his own love for God. He said that he has felt for eight years like Saint Peter himself, close to the Lord Jesus in the boat on the sea of Galilee, in days when the “fishing was good” and days when the waters were rough. Of his “grave decision” to lay aside his office, he spoke of his “serene trust in God’s will and of deep love for the Church.”
“The pope is never alone, he belongs to everyone,” Benedict said. The affection and love of the Catholic people supported him these eight years, he acknowledged. At the same time, his service cost him dearly, for it was “a great weight you place upon my shoulders.” At the end of it all, Joseph Ratzinger proposed again what he has proposed since he was a young Bavarian professor: “The joy of being Christian – we are grateful for the gift of faith, which is the most precious thing. God loves us!”
On the level of culture alone, it was a moment of deep humanity, a transparent moment touching the transcendent, a great and noble soul encountering his people. The eternal city has seen everything. This was something new, but also something old — the earthly city reaching out, as is its ancient vocation, to glimpse the city of God.
Rome these days is most earthly indeed. The great capital witnessed this week the end of Italian democracy, at least as understood as the mature deliberation of a free people choosing responsible leaders. Italian democracy began its deathwatch in 2011, when then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire whose money apparently excuses both his incompetence and criminality, to say nothing of his repellent morals, proved unable to lead an adequate response to the economic crisis. Democracy was abandoned and a cabinet of non-elected experts was installed, led by Professor Mario Monti, by all accounts a decent and prudent man who introduced various austerity measures.
After more than a year’s suspension of democracy, Italy returned to the polls, and Monday’s result produced gridlock. The centre-left captured the lower chamber, but the centre-right, led by Berlusconi, will control the upper house. Professor Monti finished poorly, well behind comedian Beppe Grillo, the upstart star of the election, leading a ragtag coalition committed to both anarchy and the status quo. The return of Berlusconi, the odious buffoon, and the emergence of Grillo, the amusing one, signals that Italy, third largest economy in the Eurozone, is no longer capable of the serious governance required by the times.
The chaos in Italian politics is relevant to the conclave. For all that Benedict accomplished as a dazzling teacher of the faith, the Vatican bureaucracy (Roman Curia) was largely ineffective, even counter-productive, to his mission. This was not unrelated to the ambient Italian culture.
Papal biographer George Weigel, currently in Rome for the conclave, observes that Italy “has become a corrupt society and culture and that, with the deep and broad Italianization of the Roman Curia over the past half-decade, similar patterns of incompetence and malfeasance had penetrated the Leonine Wall.”
Built by Leo IV in the ninth century to protect St. Peter’s and environs after the Saracens sacked the city, the next pope will have to construct a metaphorical Leonine Wall against the toxins of Italian political culture — the rivalries, slander, corrupting ambition and sheer madness of it all. The re-Italianization of the Roman Curia was permitted by Benedict, and will have to be undone by his successor.
The cardinals, many of them with tear-filled eyes yesterday, will soon have to look clearly at who amongst them can root out the malign influence from the surrounding public culture. Not a few say privately that it would be dangerous to return the papacy to its Italian captivity. Or is there an Italian who knows how to make the Vatican machinery more efficient and more edifying? It will, in the event, be more a matter of judgment and courage than nationality.
The wisecrack in Italy this week has been “no government, no pope.” The latter will be attended to presently. Responsible democracy may not return.
Franco Origlia / Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square during his final general audience on February 27, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican